Friday, 30 December 2005

"New Year, New You!"

One of these days, an article so entitled shall deal with transformation in Christ - perhaps deification. It is only then that I shall not grit my teeth at what follows.

Honestly, has no one a mind, heart, or soul any longer? I just was visiting an Internet forum, where someone began a thread entitled "hopes and dreams for 2006." Based on past perusal of such threads, I suppose I should not be surprised that the only constant wish was to lose weight or begin an exercise programme. (..sigh... I'm glad I don't know them. If that is their only topic of conversation, what a blasted crowd of bores they all must be.) But what troubled me the more was that the few poor souls (such as myself) who posted a wish for more intellectual stimulation, spiritual growth, and social contact were 'reassured' that the others had fostered stronger friendships by joining others for racquetball (where they used to waste time on such nonsense as concerts, plays, and museums), and by 'encouraging' each other in 'healthy lifestyles.'

As Thomas Aquinas, Pope John, and I know all too well, ascetic practises (fasting included) do not guarantee one will appear to meet standards of 'health and fitness.' Yet they work - in ways which matter far more.

My advice to those looking to become a 'new you' (hate that expression and the money-making schemes behind it - what's wrong with the genuine 'you'?) would be to turn to such wisdom as that of John Cassian. Thoughts and actions can bring us closer to God and neighbour or be distractions.

Anyone for metanoia?

Briefly yours this once, I wish everyone blessings for the last day of 2005.

Sunday, 25 December 2005

And the Word was made flesh

As the angels once said to the shepherds - Fear not. I'm not about to launch on a full discussion of the Incarnation, which would not be possible at the moment. I'm no different than anyone else - I ate too much, drank too much, wept a little at the manger this morning (though the wonderful music kept me from indulging in that last unduly.) My family came for Christmas Eve lunch - this afternoon, I had a nice afternoon tea from the leftovers, downed yet another stiff drink, and then the cat and I played with one of the interactive toys Santa brought. So, now you all know what goes on in anchorholds on Christmas. :)

I am not immune to the allure of the Infant Jesus, no more than would any Franciscan be, yet I'm sorry, now and then, that much gets lost in the shuffle when we focus totally on how poor, or helpless, or well-behaved (Little Lord Jesus, no crying he makes... please! Newborns do not behave - it just is) the tiny Saviour was.

It is lovely to think of how the gospels capture the beginning of the story of our Saviour. Mark, with no attention to the early years, gives us the message flat out (a Marcan speciality): repentance. He begins his gospel with an event of such wonder that it would not have been apparent to those who observed it at the time: the first clear revelation of the Trinity, at Jesus' baptism. "My beloved Son," the descent of the Holy Ghost... pure wonder.

Luke, of course, gives us an extensive infancy narrative, and how I do wish we could see past the images of the ox and ass (whom Luke does not mention) and capture a bit more of the flavour of Gloria in excelsis Deo. (I'll spare my readers the reflection on how futile I feel about et in terra pax hominibus bonae voluntatis, since men of good will may not exist until, perhaps, the parousia, based on my knowledge of world history.) Luke gives us Israel's first glance of the fulfilment of the promise that is as old as Eden. We see Zechariah, Elizabeth, Anna, Simeon recognise the Son of God - witness Gabriel's announcement to Mary - hear canticles - and, in the end ('finding in the Temple') hear Jesus himself refer to God as his Father.

There is much in Matthew about the infancy as well - but Matthew's special emphasis (found nowhere else) is the Magi. Divine truth's being revealed to the Gentiles - homage to the priest, prophet, and king. (Of course, I always did feel for the Magi, who had the best of intentions, yet were led, in the name of protocol and respect, to tell the wrong authority what they were doing. Herod's action makes one shiver, yet it sadly shows us how terribly violent authorities can become if they fear their rank is threatened.)

My love for the gospels must be clear, but no 'beginning' gives me the thrill of John's. It has shadows of sadness for human blindness - his own received him not. Yet we are reminded "to as many as received him, he gave the power to become the sons of God." Here is the true picture of His Church - the sonship, Jesus' by nature, is ours (by adoption) as his Church. Whether we prefer the infancy images of Luke or Matthew, let us remember that "all was created through him..."

I know - I am merely saying 'the grass is green.' Yet what is most wondrous and frustrating (and, I must add, 'faith challenging') in Christianity is that it perpetually is a religion of waiting - perhaps in hope, sometimes in doubt. It is all so far beyond us. Waiting for the Messiah - and not recognising him when he came. Waiting for his return in glory - then seeing that this would not be as immediate as one thought. Waiting for the parousia - and (God forgive me, but I'm honest) wondering if that, too, will be far different than we expect. The life in this world has always been difficult, and the wondrous events, with the Incarnation foremost, did not change anything as far as we can see. Perhaps the wickedness, however much it makes one shudder, is easier to accept, because it is the result of human choices. Yet so much suffering here has no explanation - it is no one's 'fault' - and it never seems to change.

Perhaps it will help, one of these days, for me to fully realise that Jesus experienced all of that as well. :)

Many blessings to all of my readers, and I wish you a joyous Christmas season. To avoid ending on a slightly 'down' note (sorry - somehow, no matter how much I see Jesus in the manger, the shadow of the cross seems to be on him - and the sermon I heard this morning was in that vein), I leave you with a glorious quotation from the Orthodox liturgy:

Your Nativity, O Christ our God,
Has shone to the world the Light of wisdom!
For by it, those who worshipped the stars,
Were taught by a Star to adore You,
The Sun of Righteousness,
And to know You, the Orient from on High.
O Lord, glory to You!

Friday, 23 December 2005

Being a bit silly

Well, having admitted that I still wait for Father Christmas, I'm entitled to indulge my seasonal taste for the silly.

How well I remember when a small number of relatives from my large extended family (probably no more than 40 people) used to gather on Christmas Eve. This being the night when everyone was together, Santa Claus arrived at about 9:30 PM rather than on Christmas morning. There were three children present who would have been under the age of 5.

One year, when I was a director of music in a parish, I had two services, on in the evening, the other at midnight, and had said I'd drop in on the festivities in between. It was definitely a 'leave the door unlocked - with all this noise, no one would hear a knock anyway' night. As luck would have it, Santa Claus (in the person of one cousin stamping about upstairs to simulate reindeer hooves) arrived at the very moment that I did. As I opened the front door, my cousin's son (aged 3 or so) began shouting with glee, thinking Santa was coming in. I doubt that, at any time in my life, anyone was ever less happy to see me.

Moving along... Some of my family tended to marry late, and it happened that my parents were 70 and 68 before they had a grandchild. I'm sure all kids think their grandparents memories are as far-off as Alexander the Great, but the gap in age between my dad and grandson Christopher made it seem more like the age of the T. Rex. On one occasion, Sam was telling Christopher all about 'how it was when I was a boy' - not intending to be at all funny, though stories about, for example, going to the toilet outside ("my mother put out a kerosene heater... madonna mia, one side a' you'd be roastin', the other side'd be freezin'") had little Christopher roaring with laughter.

Knowing that Christopher had a well-stocked library (largely a gift from me), including Andersen's fairy tales, I could not resisting commenting, "Let Grandpa tell you about all those matches he sold on Christmas Eve." Sam was immune to imaginative literature, and responded (he'd been a grocer) that Christmas Eve in the store was the worst day of 'de ho year.' (Forgive me - my own accent is so dreadful, even if my grammar is a bit better, that I sometimes cannot resist throwing in the flavour of my dad's. He could not pronounce two consonants together, and somehow his stories sound better in his own tones.)

Trouble with us romantic sorts is that we can fall into a 'let down' mode around the time of Christmas. Somehow, I'd expected that reciting the Offices today - my tiny tree with its gold, pink and white ornaments lit - a sherry beside me - Gregorian chants for Advent in the background - would verge on the magical. Instead, my back aches from cleaning! I miss friends I cannot see this year. I'm starting to feel as if I spend a third of my time either dragging out bags to the dustbin or cleaning a cat box. And I'm so hoping I do not live to regret washing and cutting the fresh vegetables for tomorrow's buffet here a day in advance.

Why should I include such a worthless entry? (I don't know... I have not had that much sherry...) Perhaps because, now and then, I receive e-mails from would-be mystics who are looking for very intense experiences of prayer. I am not a mystic, but my life of prayer has spanned decades, and my romantic side would have like, perhaps, for the Infant Jesus to embrace me, with an angelic choir heard in the background. (That's a joke, by the way. Were I to see visions or hear heavenly choirs, I would not know whether to call for the ambulance or the undertaker.)

The fact is that very little of prayer has to do with feelings - and, the older I get, the more I see that it also has little to do with certainty. It is an act of the will in the end - and, with liturgical prayer in particular, 'going through the motions,' knowing that doxology captures what the mind cannot grasp, and that the strength of such prayer is that one may lean on the entire Church. There are days when I'm barely certain whether there is a God... but still think I just received his Body and Blood at the anamnesis of his Incarnation and resurrection.

Well, off to see if some music lifts the 'blues'... I cannot think of any situation which is not improved by music, though I'd best hold off on the weepy Scottish carols today. The Christmas season is nearly here!

(Gloriana goes off to hang her stocking... even if the only thing she'll find in it on Christmas morning is her highly curious cat.)

Tuesday, 20 December 2005

Peasant nuisance nobody

It hits me about a week before Christmas... I listen not only to my wonderful CDs (cathedral choirs, classical gems, renaissance and mediaeval) for my daily dose of Christmas music, but to the 'popular' genre as well. It must be some seasonal sentimentality, but today I nearly wept at "Baby Jesu, pa-rum-pa-pum-pum - I am a poor boy too... I have no gift to bring that's fit to give a king..." (Musician that I am, it did sadden me that the cat broke the little drummer boy my mother made at ceramics.)

I suppose it has something to do with being a Christmas baby (born the feast of John the Evangelist), and with hovering at the half-century mark, but, now and then, I feel as if my life has been a failure. I was a very gifted young woman, with a number of pronounced talents, and enough diplomae to paper a wall. Had I ever known that I would never sing later, that I'd spend twenty-one miserable years in business management, that my writing talent would never be used... well, let us just say that I would have fizzled out thirty years ago.

I had many advantages for one from a working class family, largely because of my dad's dedication, responsibility and industry. But the scholarship girl's luck sometimes runs out once the well-loved diplomae are accumulated. The well is dry - one must find work wherever it is available. Luckily, at 25 one thinks this must be temporary...

No, this is not a post to indulge pure self-pity, though I know I've done quite a job of that today. Francis of Assisi often spoke of Jesus' poverty - and spun vivid pictures of a poor family with multiple woes. In recent years, since I have been studying the scriptures in ever more depth, I smile at how very unrealistic many mental pictures of Jesus of Nazareth were.

John Dominic Crossan is no favourite of mine, to be sure, and I disagree with nearly everything he says. (I have to admit I rather enjoy him - he reminds me of a sly rogue, and the man does have quite a mind... that does not mean I recommend his works.) Yet I must admit that he was spot on, in discussing Jesus' trial and death, in commenting that this Galilean was a 'peasant, nuisance nobody.' By wordly standards, that is quite true.

I'm thinking of the stories we heard in school - and even of the 'scriptural epic' films produced in my youth, which Monty Python later would spoof so brilliantly. One would have received the impression that Jesus walked the earth surrounded by people who resembled the pictures on soppy greeting cards, the lot of them in awe of his every word. (I've said it before, but it merits repetition. We seemed to think that holiness would leave everyone loving the holy, yet forgot that perfectly natural circumstances were the cause of Jesus' crucifixion. I suppose we thought that he'd only gone to the cross because God willed this.) I'm the more impressed, today, that the Church ever began - and know (and this with full acknowledgement of Jesus' divinity!) it only could have been because of the resurrection and Holy Spirit.

There were many miracle workers, itinerant preachers, and undoubtedly quite remarkable, devout Jews in first century Palestine. Jesus was distinguished mainly for applying words about God to himself. His followers were few enough, and he was not a man of great learning (though indeed of brilliance) or achievement. Perhaps he was a good carpenter, but it appears he spent his adult life, or at least the time of his ministry, dependent on the good will of others.

I believe it was scripture scholar Raymond E. Brown who commented, again aptly, that most of us accept only as much of Jesus' humanity as we wish. Somehow, we seem to think we are insulting his divinity if we admit just how very human he was. I sometimes can all but feel the sense of futility he must have endured at times. ( Howard Marshall notes how Luke’s narrative of the Last Supper is “impregnated with apostasy, self-seeking, denial, and betrayal – attendance does not transport the disciples to Paradise or lift them out of trial and temptation. The grim narrative heightens Jesus’ self-giving, and the promise that, through his death, salvation and the heavenly banquet are offered to weak, fickle disciples.” And what followed that night is not anything upon which I'm sure the apostles later cared to dwell.)

To speak of myself and Jesus in the same breath seems close to blasphemous - but "I am a poor boy, too. I have no gift to bring." Perhaps I can lift myself out of my sense of failure a bit if I remember that this 'peasant, nuisance nobody' not only was the Son of God but accepted the lot of his life on earth in all particulars.

Here is a man who was born in an obscure village, the child of a peasant woman. He grew up in another obscure village. He worked in a carpenter shop until He was thirty, and then for three years He was an itinerant preacher.

He never wrote a book. He never held an office. He never owned a home. He never set foot inside a big city. He never travelled two hundred miles from the place where He was born. He had no credentials but Himself.

While still a young man, the tide of popular opinion turned against Him. His friends ran away. One of them denied Him. He was turned over to His enemies. He went through the mockery of a trial. He was nailed upon a cross between two thieves.

His executioners gambled for the only piece of property He had on earth while He was dying -- and that was His coat. When He was dead, He was taken down and laid in a borrowed grave through the pity of a friend.

Nineteen wide centuries have come and gone and today He is the centerpiece of the human race and the leader of progress. I am far within the mark when I say that all the armies that ever marched, and all the navies that ever were built, and all the parliaments that ever sat, and all the kings that ever reigned, put together have not affected the life of man upon this earth as powerfully as that One Solitary Life.

by James A. Francis

Monday, 19 December 2005

Lessons, carols, and 'coming home' for holidays

As I write this, I am listening to the CD "Angelic Voices," performed by the choir of Lincoln Cathedral. The last selection I heard was a great favourite of mine, "Lo, he comes with clouds descending." How I love that rousing hymn, the more when I am at services where those who have not been to church since Easter are joining the rest of us.

Yes - I know this is not what I 'should' be saying. I suppose I should be bemoaning the empty pews at other times. Yet I do not see where people who come home only for holidays are any less a part of the family. Theologically, indeed I could trace how the Eucharist (and psalms...) held the Church together when nothing else could - Lord knows there never was agreement on doctrine from the days of Peter and Paul's argument at Antioch. But I'm going from the sublime to the practical today. Not everyone is a churchgoer - and whether one is or not often has little to do with one's degree of devotion.

I am of Meditterranean background - and many of such stock, though they are believers (...not too much... just enough), and may call upon God regularly (or, at the very least, have a nice chat with his mother), shall not be noted for a huge emphasis on word and sacrament. Thankfully, religious practise also is not coloured by some sort of rosy devotion to the family... not amongst people who already have more family obligations than they know how to handle. Family, marriage, children - it is all about commitment and responsibility, not glorifying the state, not seeing parents as latter-day angels. Were anyone to write this up as a theological truth (unlikely), it would boil down to - this is the covenant - so now, live it. If this involves churchgoing, fine - but I would far rather see people avoid common worship than merely attend because it is what society expects, or as a mark of respectability.

I'm Franciscan: bring in the thieves, the members of the 'sex addicts group,' whomever - one who first promised Paradise to a manipulative thief on the Cross will not mind. The Church is (and always was) a motley mess - let's not think that the Church already is holy ( affliction of those who are in the pew a good deal at times), and that one must exclude those less so. (Even if one must be careful to watch one's wallet. Let it not be said that I came through 27 years of Franciscan life totally unscathed.) Let them in for Christmas... then to be smudged on Ash Wednesday (how very appropriate, now that I think of it)... then to join in again at Easter. This is home!

Let us not 'knock' those who 'came for the concert' either. (As long as they do not look down their noses at the coughing man or the crying baby.) If music and liturgy gets someone through the door, then let us bless that as a means of grace, not give them nonsense (such as I heard in many an RC circle) about "you need to bring the beauty inside yourself." (Methinks that is overestimating just how beautiful most of our innards are.)

For all my love of Christmas, all of my enjoying the eschatological focus of Advent, this is a 'blue' time of year for me. I miss my friends - those who have died (I'm much too young to have so many of those...), those whom I sadly cannot see this Christmas. I dread the long, bitter winter ahead, and so hate the cold and dark. For me, services (with good music) are a balm.

Yesterday, I attended a lovely service of Lessons and Carols. (As it happened, I had the crying baby in front of me... That amazed me because, in the particular parish, there is no evidence that people have babies. They have children, of course, but my impression had been that they are never tiny, but instead hatched at just the age to be sent off to school.) The church, which is large, was absolutely packed, both for that service and for the Eucharist to follow. Claustrophobic though I am, I was happy to see the crowd, knowing well that many there had not visited in quite some time, and even that some may not be particularly Christian in beliefs. My only regret was that, with so many people packed so tightly, I could not sing 'full voice,' and was reduced to unhappy crooning.

Let's rejoice at everyone who is home for Christmas. (Don't give them collection envelopes or suggest the Alpha Course, please.)

Friday, 16 December 2005

Time for "O antiphons"

I may be back later for my usual missive - but, for the moment, I leave my readers with a link to a site about Antiphons of Advent, which will be part of the daily Offices beginning on the 17th. They are rather too marvellous to overlook.

Thursday, 15 December 2005

A thought or two on Narnia

I have long loved the genre of 'fairy tale,' devouring volumes of folk tales from all lands, the Brothers Grimm and Andersen. Considering my great love for the theological works of C. S. Lewis, which I've indulged for decades, it may surprise my readers that I did not enter the world of Narnia until I was perhaps 45 years old, after a discussion with a dear friend about "The Magician's Nephew." It was naturally a most rewarding experience - in fact, I've added a link to the title for those interested in finding the Narnia works available through (Shameless plug, I know - but the tiny commissions I receive help me purchase my school books...) :)

Needless to say, I was off for a rare cinema visit (there being one near me with cheap matinees) as soon as the new film version of Narnia was released. I would highly recommend the film - and was pleased and surprised that Disney, which normally ruins my favourite stories (what they did to Beauty and Beast was unspeakable) remained true to Lewis.

Tilda Swinton was superb as the white witch. I found her beauty and (initially) flattering and gentle manner to be extremely effective in capturing the deceptive ways of evil, and the appeal to Edmund's desire for esteem (a crown is not to be lightly esteemed!) and pampering.

One part I felt very powerfully was the burden of Edmund's betrayal. It was very intensely captured, I believe - initially from frustration, then fear, a desire to regain the Queen's favour, more than from sheer malice. So much of maturity comes from seeing the consequences of one's actions, and Edmund's seeing the imprisoned, then killed, faun was a strong image.

Of course, I've always loved good 'fairy tales,' mythology, and legends. I think we need to remember they began long before Freud. Any horned creature was doomed after Sigmund began to hold power.. I would suggest that no one approach fairy tales of any kind without wiping out any lingering ideas that everything is a symbol for sexual organs - that the centaur indicates bestiality - and so forth. Children know, as we forget, how images can speak to us - we shall miss the image if we place it through a Freudian filter.

Why do I mention this? Well, in part because, on a discussion forum today, I noticed all sorts of people who were up in arms at what they saw as a strong hint of paedophilia 'warning signs' in Narnia. Deep sigh... I should like to kick the lot of them right in the Aslan... They feared the film would be dangerous for children, considering that a little girl who meets a faun goes off for tea (he was staring at the first human he'd ever seen... a 'warning sign'), and this may prompt their own children to not be wary of strangers.

Fairy tale nut that I am, I think one needs to be careful about being overly literal with that genre. Children (whether now or in 1940) would not be likely to go off to have tea with strangers... the more if they had horns and tails... but fairy tales, where one always encounters the old man, the witch, the wise woman, fairy, troll, dragon, whatever, seem to me to capture encountering realities of life, not literally, actually meeting someone (unless it is oneself or a characteristic of human nature.) I cannot imagine that children viewing this film would therefore be inclined to go off to cottages to have tea with strange fauns, nor to ride off to battle on unicorns, nor even to have conversations with previously unknown beavers.

The only danger I know of amongst us fairy tale 'addicts' ( my page will be unreadable in some browsers of concerned parents) is that some dreams endure. I keep expecting to be offered three wishes, or to find the path that leads me to Eden before the fall...

Part of what I found very intriguing with C. S. Lewis is that he, like myself (though we are hardly alike in many ways), was a man of such complexity. Rational, stiff upper lip Jack could present "Mere Christianity", and speak of suffering without great pathos until he experienced it in the loss of one whom he loved. (He'd suffered plenty before then, of course, but unlike myself did not have a lifelong inclination to being loved... and being hurt. He'd learnt, too early, how connected the two can be, especially when grief follows.) Yet he also could weave magical pictures of wardrobes opening a door to other worlds.

One of these days, in my own spiritual life, I'll learn where the magic ends and the full reality begins... though I never wish to lose the magic altogether.

Saturday, 10 December 2005

Let us raise a toast to Father Christmas!

Yes, indeed I do believe in Santa Claus. Not that I expect some jolly man to descend the chimney (which I do not have) and leave me a host of lavish presents (...though I suppose I keep hoping.) Yet I believe the spirit of merry-making, giving, enjoyment and feasting which were part of the approaching Christmas season could stand quite a bit of reviving.

Before I proceed, I cannot resist referencing an item I saw today (it was a day when I was bewailing a lack of mince pies and mulled wine in my flat, so I was searching for rather silly Christmas sites). This is from the FAQ at the delightful Santa, which has a facility for e-mailing the distinguished man himself.

"What kind of milk should I leave out?

Occasionally kids ask if Santa is lactose intolerant so they know what kind of milk to leave out, and the answer is that "no," Santa likes all kinds of milk and has no intolerances, so any types are fine and greatly appreciated! The only type of milk Santa will probably not drink is buttermilk, although he will use it in cakes.

Mrs. Claus prefers me to drink cold fat free (aka skim) milk, because of the health benefits; however I like to drink all the kinds of milk listed except buttermilk."

All right - I'll concede that I laughed when I read this. (I personally think my aunt's kids had a better idea. They left out two whiskeys - one for Santa Claus, and one for their father.) Yet it does make me shake my head. Kids worried about lactose intolerance and health benefits of skim milk... I suppose, with all the current emphasis on the obesity epidemic, the man whom Clement Moore described as heavy must be certain the kids know he is very fit. Elsewhere, there was a reference to his exercise...

Getting back on track... There is an Internet forum on which I participate which is quite interesting many times, but I cannot stand the Calvinist/ Jansenist guilt trips as Christmas approaches. At what season would it be better to celebrate, enjoying not only the reality of the Incarnation but the sacramental (yes, I think it deserves that distinction) love which we mortals share with one another? But no... the participants (who, from the tone of their wailing and gnashing of teeth, are far more prosperous than my family ever was) want to eliminate gifts, feasts, take their children to a homeless shelter to show them how good they have it... the lot. They'll all be moaning that they are 'too comfortable' and a 'drain on the earth's resources.'

I daresay that Dickens (for all of his misery in life), having Scrooge look back on Fezziwig's party today, would have to make reference to those who ruined it stating they were on Weight Watchers, 'had to drive,' could not bear to dance with all the wars going on in this world, and who could not bear to open their presents because "people should give it to charity, where it would at least be useful."

Why do people so fear the love and generosity which we can show to those who are dear to us? It always was a Calvinist thing - I daresay the Puritans are turning in their graves that Christmas is celebrated at all, pagan feast that it is, and a day for the working classes to not be productive. (Those who think Scrooge is a cartoonish miser have not taken a look at those around them... he is alive and well, and not at all likely to have been visited by the three spirits.) But it seems to be infecting even the Catholic sorts today.

I'm sorry to see this. Yes, I could write a missive on the Incarnation, but I've decided to instead raise a glass to Father Christmas. The Christmas season, in effect, gave people permission to treat one another well without fear of being suspected of selfish motives. Co-workers would share a drink - friends (yes, even those of us who were relatively poor) would exchange little pressies. I'd love a mulled wine and mince pie now... though, at the moment, there is no one with whom I can share one (the cat gets rather irritable if I give her too much wine.)

We know little of the real Saint Nicholas - but he is remembered for generosity, providing dowries for girls who would not have been able to marry otherwise. (Please do not e-mail me on male domination and patriarchy...) I dare say those on the forum would have told Nicholas to tell them to be resigned to their lot, embrace 'single life as vocation,' or forget it all and go off to see how much less fortunate the lepers were.

I am not in the least callous towards those who are desperately poor, the victims or war, or otherwise in dreadful situations! But is the caring we show those we love, the little remembrances, the pleasant shared meals, the time in the pub, not valuable in itself? Should enjoying the goods of this earth, and showing love and gratitude to others, be feared?

Let us not forget to have true holidays! The man who turned water into wine would, I am sure, agree that the goods of this earth, and our intercourse with others, is to be celebrated. (Jesus must have done enough of it for his detractors to complain about it so much... and spare me the business about how this was purely 'table fellowship' to foreshadow the Eucharist!)

At this stage of my life, as in my childhood, I do not have many material things, though I am fortunate to have the basic necessities of life. All the more do I appreciate and enjoy the little treats! I doubt those who post on the forum are correct in thinking that everyone is awash in materialism - in fact, I would guess that children (today as when I was young) never once stop and think "why did Santa give me only small things, when others got large ones?" (Most kids would love to play with a box...) The other side of loving one's presents, as I do indeed, is gratitude. At what season is this more appropriate?

So, I raise my glass to Father Christmas! Salud! Cheers! And may one of the last sounds to die out on this earth be that of laughter, merriment, and the warm words of friends who have at least one time each year when they are not ashamed to thank God for one another.

Thursday, 8 December 2005

Glorious Church, holy and immaculate...

I am by no means suggesting that we, Christ's Church, have ever come close to being either of these things. When people tell me that they fell the Church is in a decline - that things are so evil and wretched today - I remind them that I, whose concentration was largely mediaeval and renaissance, have it on good authority that, yes, it is His Church, and thus shall survive.

Let us take a look at Ephesians for a moment. I'm not digging out my commentaries this time - it is my anniversary of vows, and I'm in one of my moods of combined awe (that He's kept me close to Himself, Lord knows sometimes going after the wandering sheep) and what I can only describe as 'quiet.' So, here are some verses from chapters 1 and 5 of Ephesians, which are in the Roman Office as 'daytime prayer' for the feast of the Immaculate Conception:

Before the foundation of the world, he chose us in Christ to be his people, to be without blemish in his sight, to be full of love; and he predestined us to be adopted as his children through Jesus Christ... In Christ indeed we have been given our share in the heritage, as was decreed in his design whose purpose is everywhere at work, for it was his will that we, who were the first to set our hope in Christ, should cause his glory to be praised... Christ loved the Church and gave himself up for it, so that he might present the church to himself all glorious, with no stain or wrinkle or anything of the sort, but holy and without blemish.

Franciscans will be noted for their propagation of the dogma of the Immaculate Conception. It was a great favourite of their preachers, in the Middle Ages and beyond (yes, even if Thomas Aquinas did not think it wise... now and then, I suppose, heart wins over head, even in the mind of the Church.) Franciscan preaching - then as now, tending to appeal to the heart, 'meet people where they are,' and to favour topics related to Christ's humanity (and a Son without a family, especially a mother, is unthinkable) - can be of great value indeed. Yet the flaw which Franciscans sometimes encountered (and this by no means unique to them... but, since there were so many of them and they travelled so widely, they did tend to have more influence) was that they stressed the humanity of Jesus, or an attribute of his Mother, to an extent where the divine Logos and deeper meanings surrounding doctrines about Mary became a bit on the veiled side.

This week, when I was reading the works of the Tractarians, I believe it was a Tract written by Pusey which deplored excessive Marian devotion, quoting from devotional literature (such as that which boiled down to 'pray to Mary - she has authority over her son'), and saying, quite rightly, that Mary is not to be elevated to a 'fourth person' of the Trinity. Of course, devotional writings (...and he did not even get to the Franciscans!) and preaching are not strictly doctrinal in many cases. There assuredly is no doctrine that Jesus is subject to Mary, as if she were a superior.

The entire richness of Marian devotion is two-fold - and, too often, neglected. The first element is always Christology. If we forget, for example, how often Jesus' humanity or divinity were challenged in heretical theological thought, we equally will neglect to recall that Mary as "Mother of God" (since Jesus is the divine person) reminds us of one who was God and Man.

Second, Mary is always the model of the Church. As I mentioned in a previous post, the doctrine of Mary's perpetual virginity is beautiful in that virginity, in a Christian tradition, is an eschatological sign - a reminder that there is more to creation than this world as we know it. The perpetual virgin is an icon - a sign of the Church in eschatological expectation.

Here, I shall made an admission that would cause any Franciscan to blush - yes, I know Augustine's writings (all too well), but I'm not about to try to explain the Immaculate Conception, because I've never fully understood either the Augustinian concept of original sin (being more inclined to favour Irenaeus) or the Immaculate Conception. Yet, once again, Mary is an icon. She is the model for the Church - a church which assuredly falls far short of what we are called to be, as we see in the exquisite lines from Ephesians which I quoted above.

I found the brief readings from Ephesians to be enormously powerful. Christ is true Man - but one in whom all things were made. His humanity, his incarnation, our deification in his assuming our nature and being glorified - these are of value we can not begin to contemplate. Yet we must not forget the omnipotent, timeless, divine Logos - who called the Church to himself before mankind had any idea of Christianity, long before Jesus of Nazareth walked the earth.

Mary was never within the power of evil - the Church is not, wicked though we can be (and we've shown ourselves capable of being major shites since Cain and Abel were young.) Evil cannot triumph. Now, I am not so eloquent or deep as to be able to explain this... it would seem impertinent to even try. :) But if Jesus' mother was redeemed before his birth (and she needed a redeemer no less than the rest of us), why would this be so surprising? It is not just a commentary on Mary's sinfulness, but a reminder of the all - powerful Logos, who was always at work as redeemer, always active in creation, and, if this was not known, it was because of the limitations of human vision, not because the reality was any less.

Yes, what we have here today is a poorly constructed, sloppy sort of sermon... but I'm a Franciscan, so humour me. God give you peace and a blessed Advent. Pray for this weak but loving soul who occasionally lets her intellectual discipline lapse to be a mere Herald of the Great King.